I arrived in Saigon early in the morning on a bus from Phnom Penh. We had been let out on the side of the road, just a few blocks from the main backpacking area, and almost instantly the bus was surrounded by motorbike drivers offering rides to guesthouses and hostels nearby. By this point in my trip, this had become one of many familiar sights. Some people jumped at the opportunity to get a ride to where ever it is they were going, but since I gave up pre-booking anything way back in Bangkok at the beginning of my trip, I politely said no and tried to figure out exactly which way I needed to walk. Unfortunately, these men were not giving up so easily, and continued to bother the three of us left standing on the sidewalk after the main rush was over. I mostly ignored them, as I was arranging to look at a guesthouse with a lady who had appeared out of thin air (they always do), but when the girl next to me began yelling and crying at the men hassling her for business, I became very aware of everything happening around me. Now, I’m not saying that she was over-reacting in her world, but in SE Asia she definitely was. Not only did she humiliate herself by screaming, but she made the situation worse in the process. They thought it was funny, which meant that they were going to keep doing it. And they did, resulting in more screaming and crying and laughing. It was the definition of a hot mess ladies and gentlemen… SE Asia style. Eventually the lady I was as conversing with grabbed this girl, and with an annoyed look on her face dragged her along with us through the back streets of Ho Chi Minh City. She didn’t want her with us any more than I did, but she wasn’t about to leave her there to continue to make a fool of herself.
With that small incident behind me, I settled into my room and set out to explore a little of Saigon. This city was everything I had imagined it would be, and unlike Bangkok, the busy streets didn’t seem to be driving me crazy. In fact, I found myself really loving Ho Chi Minh City. I loved being able to eat at a new place every night, the fact that I could once again find some amazing street food (it’s all about the food ladies and gentlemen), and the fact that there were more shops and interesting things all around me to look at. I didn’t do a lot my first day besides get the lay of the land surrounding my guesthouse, but it was still a great way to introduce myself to Saigon.
After a glorious night of sleep I decided it was high time I saw a little more of Saigon, and what better way to do it than by motorbike? This is, after all, one of the many places in Vietnam where motorbikes outnumber any other type of vehicle, so I found a driver in need of a job and off I went. It should come as no surprise to any of you who have been reading this blog for any length of time, that I’ve already forgotten my driver’s name, but I have. Regardless he was a really good tour guide and took my on an extended tour of the city (which I didn’t ask for but what can you do!?) while chauffeuring me to the places I wanted to see.
I went to a few temples, saw the Nomtre-Dame Cathedral replica, and enjoyed a nice back alley coffee with my driver as we waited out a rainstorm. It was a pretty good afternoon all things considered. As I paid my driver at the end of our tour, I promised him I would use him again if I saw him in need of work and told him goodnight. I was in desperate need of a shower and some dinner, so I headed back to my room to freshen up before heading out again for the night. I found a place to eat and spent most of the night chatting with a guy sitting at the table next to me. It had begun to rain, so neither of us were in a hurry to leave. We enjoyed more than a few beers and parted ways when the staff seemed restless to make us pay.
By this point in my trip I was getting desperate for a haircut. My pixie cut had grown out into an awkward per-pubescent shag cut and was becoming so annoying I broke down and walked into the salon across the street from my guesthouse and asked for a trim. Luckily the cut only cost me $3, because it was by far the worst haircut I had ever received, and instead of the trim I asked for, all my hair was gone except my extra long bangs… so I did what ever woman would do in such a situation… I bought myself a pedicure and spent the day hiding inside avoiding mirrors. Sigh.
Realizing I couldn’t hide indoors forever (my visa doesn’t last that long), I caught a motorbike to the Reunification Palace and continued with the Saigon tourist route. While standing in line for a ticket I struck up a conversation with the guy standing in line ahead of me and ended up having a new friend for this section of my day. He was from Spain or Brazil… I can’t remember which one… and shockingly I’ve also forgotten his name as well! Lets just call him Tim for the remainder of this section, as I remember him having some Tim like qualities (whatever that means) and a non-Hispanic name possibly in the Tim ballpark. Anyway, he absolutely dreads the idea of touring places alone, so I more than happily agreed to keep him company as I also prefer the company of other people over being alone.
As we walked through rooms, found ourselves lost, and viewed everything from cars to perfectly preserved rooms to a shooting range in the basement section of the building we chatted about everything we saw in the time-warp of a building to our own life experiences. We parted ways outside the building where he gave me directions to the War Remnants museum a few blocks away and I pointed him in the direction of Notre-Dame Cathedral a few blocks in the other direction. It had a good morning by all accounts and was about to be followed by the most Anti-American museum in the history of the world.
It’s not that I wasn’t expecting this museum to be so harsh on America, or that I even blame Vietnam for having such a museum, its just that it’s hard to have an entire museum dedicated to making the country you call home seem like the creator of demons and all things unholy. In all fairness, most of the things that happened in Vietnam were horrific, and I’d never argue that fact or try to downplay any of my countries responsibility, but why isn’t there a museum dedicated to any of the other countries involved in the war or even a mention of them at all? I found myself listening to people reading the displays talking about America this and America that and left feeling very ashamed of where I just happen to have been born and raised. I didn’t have any family involved in this war, and more than saw it’s effects on the soldiers who had returned home afterwards during my year with AmeriCorps, but none of that seemed to matter in those walls. I didn’t speak to anyone the entire time I was there. What could I have said anyhow that would have made them hate me any less for being what I am… a citizen of the United States.
Later that evening as I was walking around after dinner, I found a store selling propaganda posters and went inside to browse through the piles of beautiful and amusing posters from the 1960’s on up. The wife of the shop owner graciously stopped eating her dinner, against my protests, to come help me browse and taught me how to say the phrases written on the three posters I ended up purchasing. While I enjoyed looking through the anti-Nixon and anti-war posters, I ultimately settled for 3 much happier posters about unification and peace as the colors and designs were appealing to me. I find the propaganda posters they use throughout Vietnam to be quite beautiful, so I’m incredibly happy to have a few to remember my trip by.
I finally caved in a booked a tour to see the Cu Chi Tunnels north of Ho Chi Minh City. They were high up on my list of things to see, but I quickly became disappointed at the lack of variety you have in the way of tours. I picked the only option available and prepared myself for being part of a tour group. I hate tours… I much prefer small groups or solo trips to places of interest over hurried large groups of people. I just don’t feel like I’m ever given the right amount of time to see anything on display or experience the places I’ve ever been given a tour of. Sigh. This one wasn’t any different. It started with a trip to the famous Cao Dai temple (?) also located north of Saigon. I had never head of Cao Daisim before, and I’m guessing most of you haven’t either, and to be completely honest I still have no idea what this religion is really about. I DO know that we were conveniently taken to the temple just in time for their 12 o’clock worship, where we were all yelled at for attempting to be in front of the temple for photographic reasons. I felt absolutely horrible watching people pray and bow with my camera in hand. I took a few pictures of the temple, because it’s uniquely stunning with its cloud themed ceiling, ornate tile work, and dragons and lotus flowers everywhere. I also (hang head) took 2 photos of the people bowing, but afterwards I just felt so very dirty for being involved in such a tour and for taking their photos. Why can’t they just let these people worship in peace?!
Finally it was on to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where unfortunately I felt rushed the entire time as a part of the group. There were so many things I didn’t have time to photograph, and even more things I probably didn’t hear the guide tell our group. Despite that, this is an incredibly cool place to visit. You get to learn about the brilliant systems used for things like ventilation, cooking and getting water. There is an impressive display of traps and other oddities like a tank situation smack in the middle of the jungle, and even a firing range that seemed rather tacky and sent the eerie noise of gunshots ringing through the trees. If by chance none of that sounds appealing, then there is always the fact that you get to crawl through one of the tunnel sections if you’re brave enough.
As you can see I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to climb inside… and now I know that I’m not built for Vietnamese tunnels… which seemed fitting since, after all, I am from the enemy country.